In the 1950s, the trawlermen made Hull a wealthy city. Often derided for their antics on land, today the men are regaining respect – and compensation for their lost industry. Chris Arnot reports
We are across the broad, brown River Humber from that point where, as Philip Larkin put it, “sky and water and Lincolnshire meet”. Here in St Andrew’s Dock, Hull, water is slapping against the rotting wood of the old lock gates. Once upon a time, they would swing open at regular intervals to welcome home the trawlermen after three weeks of raw winds and buffeting Arctic seas. Most of them had four things on their minds: getting paid, getting laid, getting smartened up and getting drunk.
But not necessarily in that order.
If they had a good haul, and the markets were favourable, they could walk away from the dockside “settlings” with their pockets stuffed with cash. They had 72 hours to enjoy it. Hence their nickname, the three-day millionaires, which is the title of a new video by local historian Alec Gill. It’s his fifth on the trawlermen and the Hull fishing industry which once thrived on their heroic efforts. He has also written five books on the subject.
“They were the underdogs, fighting against nature at sea and social prejudice at home,” he enthuses. “Everything was out of proportion. The extreme working conditions and high loss of life meant they never knew when they were coming back, and when they were at home they lived at a heightened emotional level.
“George Orwell talked about society standing on the shoulders of the miners. I believe the port of Hull prospered on the backs of the trawlermen.”
It prospers no longer. Dereliction is all too evident amid the vandalised buildings that line the St Andrew’s quayside. Round the corner in Albert Dock, there are still a few trawlers, providing work for perhaps 200 men. And their jobs could be under threat, despite ministers’ claims that they have, for the time being, staved off EU demands for swingeing reductions in permitted catches of threatened fish.
In the 1950s, almost 8,000 trawlermen worked out of Hull. They lived cheek-by-jowl with one another, on sea and land. Comradeship and community were strong, but so were the tensions brought about by an excess of testosterone in confined spaces. “If you were a single man, you didn’t talk about sex on board,” one of the trawlermen, Stan Cox, confides to Gill’s video camera. “Somebody would be bound to say, ‘That’s my sister’. And then…” He smacks his fist into the palm of his hand to emphasise the consequences.
The skippers often lived in pleasant Humberside villages. At sea, they shared the hardships and the dangers. On land, they tended not to blow their earnings. They earned more than the men, but they also took on bigger financial risks. “Skippers were expected to pay for their own fuel and nets,” says Gill. “It was like a feudal system. At the top were the trawler owners. They were like barons; if there was a glut on the market, they could sell the catch for fish meal or cod liver oil. On those occasions, though, the men didn’t get paid. In fact, they were told they owed the company money. It was called ‘settling in debt’. The cash was deducted from their wages on the next trip.”
Gill, 54, is a popular figure in and around Hessle Road. Former trawlermen and their families appreciate the respect his books and videos have paid to their courage and fortitude – respect that has not always been forthcoming from other quarters. “The rest of Hull looked down their noses at the Hessle Roaders,” he says. Successive governments, meanwhile, have treated them with a lack of respect bordering on contempt.
The trawling industry was decimated by the last of the cod wars, fought over Icelandic waters in the 1970s. Since then, there has been a failure to come up with a workable common fisheries policy in Europe. “The trawler owners received decommissioning money from the EU,” says Gill, “but the men had no redundancy payments.”
At least the present government has agreed to close a loophole in the payment system and released £10m in compensation. Some 1,300 former trawlermen have become eligible for up to £20,000 each. For others, though, the payouts have come over 20 years too late. They died waiting.
Their sons and grandsons have had to look elsewhere for work, with mixed success. Male unemployment in this part of west Hull is running at 15%, almost three times the national average. Yet Hessle Road has regained some of the bustle which it lost during the bleak years of the early 1980s. The pubs where trawlermen slaked epic thirsts are still there and the fish and chip shops are doing a roaring trade. Well represented, too, is the pawnbroking business. But then it always was. The day the men went back to sea, their wives would form a queue to “hock” a selection of exotic suits.
Despite their macho image, the trawlermen had a surprisingly dandyish streak. One tradition of the men was a visit to their tailor to be measured for something stylish – high waistbands, wide bottoms, moon pockets, in a range of colours, from sky blue to shocking pink.
“I had a white ‘un once. There were that many pockets I could never find my loose change,” says Billy Nelson, 63. Despite sharing a surname with the most famous admiral of all, this Nelson was a humble ship’s cook. “I’d been in the merchant navy, but that was a doddle compared to the trawlers,” he says. “On my first trip I was sick as a dog. It was rougher and colder than anything I’d experienced before. And I had it easy compared to the other lads. They were on deck for 10 hours or more in those vicious winds.”
No wonder Gill becomes irritated when he hears them referred to as fishermen. “Fishermen stand on river banks with rods,” he says. “Trawlermen are an altogether tougher breed.” He has made this point, quite forcibly, to the developers of a new leisure complex at the far end of Hessle Road. With its drive-thru McDonald’s, its Deep-Pan Pizza, its bowling alley and cinema complex, it could be anywhere in Britain or the US.
“They wanted to call it Fishermen’s Wharf,” snorts Gill. “But I think they’re having second thoughts.” A small victory for local pride in a global economy.
Return of the natives
The wives of the trawlermen received a small regular wage while their husbands were away. “Then, every three weeks, you had three days when you felt like a princess,” says Mavis Wegg, one of the stars of Alec Gill’s video.
“I used to hire a washing machine for half a crown [12 and a half pence] and split the difference with the neighbour. She’d have it in the afternoon. While his kit was drying on the line, he’d take me and the children into town, buy us something nice and give us a slap-up lunch at Hammond’s [department store] or one of those new Chinese restaurants. Very posh.”
Roy Wegg, right in photograph, with fellow trawlerman Malcolm McRitchie was proof, perhaps, that not all of the three-day millionaires binged their “settlings” away, although he did his fair share of drinking in the early days. He worked on the trawlers from 1957 to 1967. “Before that I was an apprentice bricklayer earning £1.50 a week,” he recalls. “I got fed up with my mates coming home with loads of money and flashy suits.” So he went to sea with them and became one of the boys.
But fatherhood brought responsibilities. “My husband worked extremely hard, sometimes up to 18 hours a day on deck, so that my sons didn’t have to go on the trawlers,” says Mavis, who managed to put away savings from the inflated pay packets he sometimes brought home – £150 on one occasion. That was serious money in the 1960s.
The Weggs now live in a spick-and-span bay-windowed house in the outer suburbs. The walls in the front room are decorated with framed pictures of the ships that Roy worked on. They have never forgotten where they came from, or the intense pleasures of those three days every three weeks.